Tomorrow’s leaders must not only embrace change — they must create it. This requires a set of four essential skills that CLOs can help them develop.
It’s tempting to resist change in favor of the status quo. The problem is that in today’s business world, change is the status quo. According to Harvard Business Publishing’s annual survey of learning executives, building the capacity to contend with the increasing pace of change is a top leadership development priority.
While change management is an established field of management study, survey respondents reported that change has a new spin. The new goal, they say, is to develop leaders who do more than manage change — they create change.
What are the capabilities that will position leaders to confidently lead change? There are four key capabilities. The leaders of the future must be:
1. Dynamic strategists.
2. Courageous innovators.
3. Emotionally and culturally intelligent.
4. Learners and teachers who develop their own and their teams’ strengths.
Organizations need strategies that are alive and responsive to changing market realities.
“We need to think about strategy as a system of advantage that evolves and is responsive to conditions inside and outside the firm,” said Cynthia Montgomery, a professor at Harvard Business School. “So it’s better to think about strategy as something that is open. It’s adaptive — it’s not solved and settled.”
Tomorrow’s leaders are flexible and future focused. They foster a culture that embraces strategic initiative. Big-picture thinkers, they instinctively rise above day-to-day management activities to scan the larger business landscape for opportunities. They know when to step back, determine what they want to achieve and what they are setting out to provide to others, and then actively engage their teams in the process of setting goals and objectives.
Business thinkers have long praised strategies that aim for sustainable competitive advantage, but in today’s fast-changing world, long-term plans may have less relevance. Montgomery recommends that leaders build their strategies around the company’s core economic purpose — defined as how you serve your customers — and keep up with how that changes over time.
“If your business closed its doors today, who would care and why? That’s your purpose,” Montgomery said. “And if you start with your core purpose, you can build a whole system of advantage around that core purpose.”
Recognizing that each and every team member is a part of that system of advantage, tomorrow’s leaders not only create strategic objectives, but also effectively communicate them to the organization, as well as align employees’ activities to high-level objectives. Ongoing communication about strategy by all staff at all levels within the organization is critical.
“In countless organizations, strategy is not clear, and it’s difficult for people to know how they should be making certain kinds of decisions,” Montgomery said. “Should they serve this channel or that channel? Should they offer a new product or hold it back? It all depends on strategy. It’s very hard to take meaningful action in a concerted way that serves the company if you don’t know what the strategy is.”
Robert S. Kaplan, another Harvard Business School professor, tells the story of one CEO who was particularly effective at achieving strategic alignment. He would walk among the employees’ workstations and stop randomly at one to engage in conversation: “I’m sorry to interrupt you, but could you explain what you were doing just before I started to talk to you and how that relates to one or more of the objectives on our strategy map?”
After the CEO strolled away, there would be a flurry of e-mails as the employee alerted friends and colleagues: “If the CEO shows up, you’d better be prepared to describe our strategy and how what you are doing contributes to its successful execution.”
The leader of the future is a dynamic strategist. By actively encouraging his or her teams to think strategically, the dynamic strategist ensures that all members of the organization stay in sync and understand exactly how their work contributes to the organization’s overall vision.
Tomorrow’s leaders are enterprising: They seek out new ideas and bring the best ones to life. They consider innovation to be a core capability for their teams, rather than a process relegated to research and development. Whether they’re working in small startups or large global enterprises, they create a culture where people are encouraged to propose, test and implement new ideas — from small process improvements to game-changing new products. They also recognize that customers may become a critical source of innovation and create the conditions to make that possible.
When a BusinessWeek and Boston Consulting Group survey named Amazon.com a top innovator, founder Jeff Bezos acknowledged that there are ups and downs, “profound moments of success and failure,” in the life of an innovative company.
“It’s not an experiment if you know it’s going to work,” he said.
Leaders take measured risks. For example, they might deliver early prototypes to customers and make design changes based on feedback. Further, they do not shun the word “creative.” They manage the creative process by purposefully building teams that include a catalytic mix of disciplines and experiences.
Author Howard Gardner recommends that corporations overcome a tendency to reward conventionality and regard “too much originality as taboo: too expensive, too risky, too divisive.” In his book Five Minds for the Future, Gardner describes the critical importance of a creative mind: “It puts forth new ideas, poses unfamiliar questions, conjures up fresh ways of thinking, arrives at unexpected answers.”
Tomorrow’s leaders have the ability to present a compelling business case with courage and confidence, persuasively and respectfully answering the concerns of their toughest skeptics. “I believe that you have to be willing to be misunderstood if you’re going to innovate,” Bezos said.
Professor Howard Stevenson, founder of the entrepreneurship program at Harvard Business School, said a surefire way to kill the entrepreneurial spirit within an organization is to punish failure severely.
“[It] simply says to your best people: ‘Take on the safest problem,’” he said.
Instead, leaders should support their innovators throughout the risk-taking process.
“You don’t want to asymmetrically say, ‘We win if you win, and you lose if you lose.’ You really need to make sure that people understand that failure is a possibility and they know in advance how you’re going to deal with it,” Stevenson said.
Tomorrow’s leaders are self-aware. They reflect upon their life experiences and their leadership purpose. They craft a career in which their core values align with their organizations’ mission, and they create a compelling vision that they can embody in their own lives.
“Character is about believing in and following a set of values,” said Linda A. Hill, professor at Harvard Business School and co-author of the forthcoming book Being the Boss. ”It’s about possessing an internal compass.”
Business educators agree that personal reflection — about leadership principles, values and ethical boundaries — may be a necessary basis for significant professional growth.
In contrast to those who wield power derived from authority, tomorrow’s best leaders inspire people through the art of influence and the power of example. The leaders of the future are relationship builders driven by personal credibility, as opposed to formal authority. Rather than resting comfortably at the pinnacle of a hierarchy, the best leaders actively coach their team members toward a collective goal. They take time to understand their teams’ passions and tap into their intrinsic motivation to contribute in meaningful ways. As leadership thinker and Pulitzer Prize-winning author James MacGregor Burns put it, the belief that people “can be lifted into their better selves is the secret of transforming leadership.”
Directive leaders often see the command-and-control style as the most efficient way to get the job done, but “the problem is that people don’t want your authority to be the end-all [and] be-all of the relationship,” Hill said. “They want a personal, human connection, an emotional link. They want you to care about them as individuals.”
As the world shrinks, the best leaders will be those who expand their emotional intelligence to cultural intelligence. June Delano, founding partner of the global advisory firm The ClearLake Group, recently led a team in Asia that spanned six cultures and six languages, thereby including a wide spectrum of views on authority.
“We needed a strategy for meeting senior executives that accommodated the differences between team members who were outspoken with little deference to authority and those who were very conscious of keeping the proper hierarchical relationship with their executives,” she said.
Delano learned that politeness — a fundamental expression of emotional intelligence — can contribute to successful global collaboration. For example, leaders should vary meeting schedules across times zones so team members equally share the inconvenience of working during “off” hours.
Learners and Teachers
Knowledge creation is the key to business performance, according to Noel Tichy, a professor at the University of Michigan Stephen M. Ross School of Business. Imagine a work environment where everyone consciously engages in learning and teaching — creating a virtuous cycle that generates shared knowledge and a workforce positioned to create change.
With most learning happening informally throughout the workday, tomorrow’s best leaders will coach, mentor, question and model the right behaviors at every opportunity. They will guide and advise not only their direct reports, but also individuals throughout the organization. Leaders are uniquely positioned to provide context for learning and to communicate the right information to their team at the moment of need.
Leaders who are open about their own learning are the best teachers. Ellen Kumata, managing director of Boston-based talent development company Cambria Consulting, contrasts two leaders from her executive coaching experience: one who demonstrates an unwillingness to learn and teach and one who models the behavior of tomorrow’s best leaders.
The first senior executive reluctantly agreed to be coached because her boss required it. She refused to do a 360 review in which her direct reports and other stakeholders would provide feedback because she didn’t want to be vulnerable.
“There’s a paradox about vulnerability,” Kumata said. “If you make yourself vulnerable, you’re invulnerable. If she had been able to let people know that she was working on professional development, she would have had a support community around her. Leaders can go back to their stakeholders and say, ‘I hear you, and here’s what I’m trying.’ And you’re actually able to turn the critics into coaches.”
The second CEO, who was leading a U.S.-centric organization’s global expansion, approached things differently. He announced to his global leaders and that he had a coach and talked upfront about the fact that he was taking time to learn — and that the rest of the organization should do so as well. Everyone at the top of the organization got coaches.
“Across two years of coaching, he was open about his learning, and he went to his senior team and talked about what his strengths were and what his development areas were,” Kumata said. All of this led to increased openness, cultural change and, ultimately, a successful global expansion for the company.
Is Your Organization Ready for Change?
Today’s rapid pace of change creates an exciting opportunity for learning professionals to re-examine their leadership development programs. As a CLO, you are in a position to foster a culture of big-picture thinking, help your teams accelerate innovation, encourage a culture of self-awareness and authenticity, and cultivate learning and teaching organizations.
Take a look at your own organization. Are your leadership competencies properly defined and refined? Are your programs designed to adapt to the changing demands that will be placed on your leaders in the coming years? These are the types of questions you’ll need to ask — and answer — for your organization to embrace and leverage change.
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